Boom. I flinch as I hear the exploding gunpowder in Medellín, home to Colombia’s famous outlaw, Pablo Escobar. The drug trafficker has been dead 24 years, but you can still hear what seem like gunshots—except now the sounds are part of the country’s national sport, Tejo. Six hundred years ago, the indigenous Colombians invented this cross between archery and bowling by throwing a solid gold disc towards a wet clay target. When the Spanish arrived, they added gunpowder to the target, which made Tejo much more exciting.
Juan Carlos, my guide, hands me two apple-sized metal discs with an uneven shape that makes it extremely difficult to hit the target. Just when I’m ready to give up, boom! I jump. I hit it!
Tejo discs aren’t gold anymore, but that metal is still prominent in Colombia’s history. On the country’s flag, yellow represents gold, while blue is for water and red is for spilled blood. Some say Simon Bolivar, who helped establish the country, created the flag with those colors because he liked blond women with blue eyes and red lips.
Medellín, known as the City of the Eternal Spring because of its temperate climate, is a bustling place where people selling candy or flowers or asking for spare pesos race from car to car and scurry back to the curb when the light turns green. Customers jockey for position at outdoor market stalls to buy vegetables, exotic fruits, and herbal remedies. Vendors pull their carts along the road, calling out “mangoes!” or “aquacates!” or “empenadas!” I breathe in the sugary aromas of papaya and pineapple.
Color is everywhere in Medellín, including in La Comuna 13, once a dangerous slum but now a peaceful neighborhood filled with bright murals depicting stories of murdered and “disappeared” residents. While I love the murals, my favorite art is at the Museum of Antioquia, where 85-year-old Medellín-born artist Fernando Botero has donated 119 of his works. To enter the museum, you walk through a plaza that exhibits 23 of his magnificent bronze sculptures.
As spectacular as the Boteros in Medellín are those in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital and largest city, and my next stop. In 2000, Botero donated 123 pieces of his own as well as 85 works by such artists as Chagall, Picasso, and Degas to the Botero Museum in Bogotá, a collection worth more than $200 million. I meet my new guide, Alexis, and we head to the museum, where I ask why there are so many bullfighting paintings. Alexis says Botero went to a matador school, but left after two years to pursue art.
The food in Colombia is fresh and delicious, with 50 varieties of potatoes and corn. In Medellín, I loved the Paisa platter, a soup consisting of beans, rice, sausage, pork cracklings, avocado, corn, fried plantain, ground beef, and arepa (bread made with cornmeal). Arepa is tasteless but when you add avocado with cilantro or minced meat, it’s delicious. In Bogotá, I head to famous Club Colombia for Ajiaco, a popular dish made with chicken, three varieties of potatoes, corn, capers, rice, avocado, plantains, and raspberry jam.
There is a burgeoning art scene in Bogotá, where you can visit 50 museums, as well as galleries, private collections, and artists’ studios. After lunch, Sandra Montenegro, director of Montenegro Art Projects, leads me on a private art tour in the up-and-coming San Felipe neighborhood. (You can arrange such tours through your travel company.) Galleries are hidden behind locked gates, through courtyards, and behind garages and homes, with little to no signage.
There’s nothing hidden about the scenery, though. Look to the east, and there’s an unending view of the Andes Mountains. Look up and you can’t miss 10,341-foot-high Montserrate, which was considered sacred in pre-Colombian times. In 1610, the first Catholic pilgrim climbed up with a cross. About 100 years ago, they built a church on top and now both pilgrims and tourists flock here. There are restaurants, souvenir shops, and food stalls selling everything fried: tamales, plantains, chorizo, chicken, creole potatoes, and blood sausage. Alexis says locals call it “the palace of cholesterol.”
Later we visit Bogotá’s Gold Museum, one of the best in Latin America. “The Muiscas—the indigenous people—mined salt but traded it for gold nuggets and then poured the gold into a lake to fertilize mother earth,” Alexis says. He explains that a new chief-to-be was covered in gold dust and taken on a golden raft on Lake Guatavita, 35 miles from Bogotá; he would jump into the lake with golden treasures to appease the Gods. When he emerged, the gold stayed in the lake, the gods were considered satisfied, and he was declared the new chief. The museum is so sacred that present-day shamans still come to make offerings of coco leaves and corn.
From Bogotá, I fly to Cartagena, where Andres, my next guide, escorts me from the airport past the old colonial city walls and the San Felipe fortress (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites) to my hotel, Sofitel Legend Santa Clara. This former nuns’ convent, which dates back to 1661, still has its cloisters and crypts but has been completely modernized and now has a large, inviting outdoor pool. I’d love to jump in, but time is limited, so I drop my bag and head out on a “Gabo” tour, a nickname for Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
As I’ve recently read One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, I’m familiar with some of the places we visit. I learn that, like Florentino Ariza in Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabo drank 30 cups of coffee a day. In the same novel, he talks about “happy Black women with multicolored scarves on their head,” and I am thrilled to meet a few Palenqueras, ladies from San Bailio de Palenque, the first city in South America to free slaves, who preserve their African heritage by wearing colorful dresses and balancing fruit on their heads.
That night, I have dinner in jail: a restaurant called Interno that’s part of a women’s prison. It was the brainchild of Colombian actress Johanna Bahamon, who, while playing the role of an inmate, decided to create a program in which female prisoners could learn a skill to help transform their lives and minimize the chances of recidivism. A volunteer chef teaches them to prepare dishes, and a few nights a week they get to cook or waitress in the restaurant. Each woman wears a T-shirt that says in Spanish, “I believe in second chances.”
I choose a delicious sea bass ceviche followed by fresh fish with farm vegetables. My waitress, Katrina, a 26-year-old from Denmark, tells me that someone slipped drugs into her suitcase, which led to her arrest at the airport and a four-year prison sentence. My heart goes out to her—she doesn’t strike me as a drug trafficker. There are 120 prisoners in the jail and Katrina shares a cell with 13 others. She’s lucky, she says, because most of the cells have double that number. “I thought this only happened in bad movies,” she tells me.
I ask whether she needs anything. She requests that I bring saltines, fruit, and toilet paper the next day, when she’ll again be serving in the restaurant. I buy the items, plus socks, T-shirts, toothpaste, shampoo, and conditioner, and request fruit from the Santa Clara concierge. (Interno is just four blocks from the hotel.) The chef assembles an enormous fruit basket and sends a butler with me to carry it.
At the restaurant, a guard lets me in as the butler hands off the fruit basket and leaves. Katrina gratefully accepts the gifts and we talk until I need to leave. By then, the guard who let me in is nowhere to be found and the one on duty, thinking I’m a prisoner, won’t let me out. Am I to be locked in overnight? Finally, another guard recognizes me and opens the door.
Before I departed for Colombia, I’d asked my tour operator to find me a school for underprivileged children in Cartagena so I could teach harmonica and gift the kids with instruments, courtesy of Hohner harmonicas. That’s how I wind up spending a rainy afternoon at the Alex Rocha Youth Center, teaching kids how to make chords on the harmonica, how to sound like a train, and how to keep time by tapping an arm against a chair. They giggle, stomp their feet, and make up their own tunes before we stop to eat a cake adorned with a silver chocolate harmonica that my hotel has given me to bring to the children.
I love Colombia. I began my trip with a gunshot, almost spent a night in jail, learned about the country’s writers and artists and how important gold was to the early Muiscas, and ended making music with children. When my driver arrives to take me back to my hotel, all the kids want me to sign their cardboard harmonica cases. It has stopped raining, and I half expect to see a rainbow of gold dust.
Traveler Fast Facts
WHAT IT IS: Colombia is a South American country of 45 million Spanish-speaking people. It’s about the size of Texas, has two oceans and three mountain ranges, and is surrounded by Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Brazil.
CLIMATE: With high mountains, low valleys, and cities close to the equator, there are three temperature regions: hot country, temperate country, and cold country. Colombia is cool and dry with rain in the Andes and hot, wet, and humid at lower levels. There are wet seasons (March–May, September–November) and dry seasons (December–February, June–August).
GETTING THERE: Avianca has the most flights to Eldorado International Airport-Bogotá and to other cities in Colombia. Private jets can land at Bogotá, and in other major cities.
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: No visa or shots are required, but it’s best to leave dollars home and use local ATMs to exchange money (though your hotel will exchange your currency). Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere, including souvenir stalls. Leave your good watches and jewelry at home, and never hail a taxi from the street. Take only taxis that your hotel or restaurant has called.
Traveler Report Card
ACCOMMODATIONS: In Medellín, the Charlee (B+) in the trendy but noisy Zona Rosa section offers spacious rooms and two small suites with air conditioning, a rooftop pool, hip bar, and breakfast included. But it will be noisy, as Colombians party till the wee hours…For more serenity, choose the new Patio del Mundo (A). Just a five-minute taxi ride from downtown, it is set in a tranquil garden and offers a hot tub, private terraces, hammocks, and complimentary breakfast…In Bogotá, Hotel Sofitel Victoria Regia (B+) includes suites with Jacuzzis, balconies, and a view of the Andes…In Cartagena, the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara (A+) combines tradition with elegance. The outdoor pool is great for kids, and the spa is first class. Choose the Presidential Suite Botero, an enormous space where the artist sleeps when he is in town. Designed by his daughter, it includes some of his paintings, photographs, and books.
CUISINE (A+): While the food in each of the above-mentioned hotels is excellent (especially at the Santa Clara), get outside to experience street food and simple and gourmet restaurants, such as Carmen in Medellín with its fresh fish from the Pacific with a sauce of passion fruit, baby bananas, pureed plantain with rum, and heart of palm. In Bogotá, head to Club Colombia for the tasty local dish, ajiaco. Don’t miss Interno, the prison restaurant in Cartagena, for a three-course meal with fresh pineapple juice or coconut lemonade; and for the best upscale dining in Cartagena, head to 1621 for the freshest French/Colombian fusion.
ACTIVITIES (A+): With private guides and drivers, there are endless activities for both adults and children. In Medellín, visit Comuna 13 and take a trip up the mountainside to the silleteros, who strap chairs to their backs filled with hundreds of flowers. In Bogotá, stroll through the Candelaria, the equivalent of New York’s Times Square, which is filled with jugglers, dancers, and magicians. In Cartagena, take a trip to Boquilla, a small fishing village where you can take a tour through the mangroves in a dugout canoe and dine on the beach while sipping coconut milk from the shell.
Margie Goldsmith an award-winning travel writer, is a frequent contributor. Tour designer Nomad Hill arranged the trip described this article and provided guides, SUVs and drivers, flights between the three cities, accommodations, and some meals.